The idea of human rights either as a moral system or as a set of legal practices does not sit well with the concept of honor. This is true for both ontological reasons and because of some reprehensible misuses of the term in constructs such as “honor killings.” Yet the absence of honor as an argument for human rights comes with a high cost in the defense of human rights generally. As Hobbes made clear in his early theory, rights—and dignity—are grounded in the human capacity to make promises and in the necessity of honoring them. In his view then, honor is an essential feature of human rights and one closely linked to the human capacity for dignity. In this article, I explore how environmental human rights place a renewed emphasis on honor as a requirement for the protection of the rights of future generations. In the process, I explore the general relationship between honor, dignity, and human rights.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
See Sessions (2010), pp. 4–6, for a discussion of several reasons for human rights advocates to approach the concept of honor being aware of its “dark side.” For an interesting discussion of the masculine/feminine dichotomies inherent in the historic meaning of honor, including in Kant, see Mika La Vaque-Manty (2006).
For Habermas (2012, p. 9), the notion of dignity invoked today by human rights defenders resembles “social honor” but distributed equally to every member of society, “through membership in an organized community in space and time.” Similarly, Jack Donnelly (2014) and Jeremy Waldron (2012) argue that human rights universalize the attribution of dignity to every human being. Habermas adds the communitarian requirement and also, in the same piece, the idea of constitutionalism as a necessary component of the transformation of restricted honor to universal dignity.
See Appiah (2010) for a rare (within contemporary philosophy) and wide ranging philosophical inquiry into the moral status of “honor codes.”
Pico, della Mirandola, Giovanni (1486; 1998), On the Dignity of Man, Indianapolis, In: Hackett.
Rosen (2012, p. 15).
See Rachel Bayefsky (2013) for a wide-ranging reinterpretation of Kant’s use of dignity and honor and their relationship to individual autonomy and social duty.
But see Karen Zivi, in for a warning about the “normalizing” power at play in adopting society’s definition of what public promises mean and why they are important.
See Hiskes (1999).
Quoted in Hiskes (2009, p. 3).
Appiah, Kwame Anthony (2010). The Honor Code. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Bayefsky, Rachel (2013). “Dignity, Honour, and Human Rights: Kant’s Perspective.” Political Theory 41 (6) 809-837.
Berger, Peter (1983). “On the Obsolescence of the Concept of Honor.” In Stanley Hauerwas and Alasdair MacIntyre (eds.), Revisions: Changing Perspectives in Moral Philosophy. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press; 172-181.
Cranston, Maurice (1967). "Human Rights, Real and Supposed," in D.D. Raphael, ed., Political Theory and the Rights of Man. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Donnelly, Jack (2014). “Human Dignity and Human Rights in Western Theory and Practice and International Human Rights Law.” Journal of Human Rights 14 (1) 1-20.
Gewirth, Alan (1996). The Community of Rights. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Glendon, Mary Ann (1993). Rights Talk. New York: Free Press.
Habermas, Jurgen (2012). “The Concept of Human Dignity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights.” In Claudio Coradetti, (ed.), Philosophical Dimensions of Human Rights: Some Contemporary Views. New York: Springer.
Harman, Gilbert (1980). "Moral Relativism as a Foundation for Natural Rights." Journal of Libertarian Studies 4: 367-371
Hiskes, Richard P. (1999). Democracy, Risk, and Community: Environmental Risks and the Evolution of Liberalism. New York: Oxford.
Hiskes, Richard P. (2009). The Human Right to a Green Future: Environmental Rights and Intergenerational Justice. New York: Cambridge.
Hiskes, Richard P., ed. (2015). Human Dignity and the Promise of Human Rights. New York: Open Society Foundations.
Hobbes, Thomas (1982; 1651). Leviathan. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press (Penguin Classics).
Kateb, George (2011). Human Dignity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Krause, Sharon R. (2002). Liberalism Without Honor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
La Vaque-Manty, Mika (2006). “Dueling for Equality: Masculine Honor and the Modern Politics of Dignity.” Political Theory 34(6) 715-40.
Pico dell Mirandola, Giovanni. 1998. On the Dignity of Man. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
Rosen, Michael (2012). Dignity: Its History and Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sandel, Michael (1982). Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Shue, Henry (1980). Basic Rights. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Sessions, William Lad (2010). Honor for Us. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Taylor, Charles (1989). Sources of the Self. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Waldron, Jeremy (2015). Dignity, Rank, and Rights. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Zivi, Karen (2015). “Dignity at What Cost? Marriage Equality in the United States.” In Hiskes, 2015.
Some portions of this article appeared in the Introduction to “Human Dignity and the Promise of Human Rights” (2015), Open Society Foundations.
About this article
Cite this article
Hiskes, R.P. The Honor of Human Rights: Environmental Rights and the Duty of Intergenerational Promise. Hum Rights Rev 17, 463–478 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12142-016-0425-3
- Future Generation
- Social Contract
- Human Dignity
- Moral Code
- Environmental Harm